Clan MacDonald History
Tracing their family lineage all the way back to Donald of Islay, the progenitor of the MacDonalds in the early 13th century, the MacDonald Clan are often regarded as the most powerful clan in Scottish history.
In fact, despite Donald of Islay being the progenitor of the MacDonalds, the history of the family can be traced back even further to Somerled, who died in 1164. Somerled, a feared warlord and military commander, was the patrilineal ancestor of multiple Scottish clans and his descendants would go on to found the MacDougall and MacAllister clans to name a few.
It is the MacDonald Clan (also known as Clan Donald) that would be the most famous of Somerled’s descendants, however, and the clan would soon go from strength to strength under his grandson Donald who was known as an iron warrior as he fought to establish the position of his clan and preserve the lands he was passed by his father of Islay and Kintyre.
The Macdonald’s would originally control their lands under the rule of the Norweigan King Haakon until 1263 when the Kingdom of Norway gave up their claim to the west of Scotland and the Hebrides following damages taken at the Battle of Largs. After this military defeat and the signing of the Treaty of Perth in 1266, an uneasy truce existed between the Scottish Monarchy and the MacDonald’s and the family would fight on the side of Robert the Bruce during the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
Over the following centuries, the clan would try to expand their lands and would become known as the Lords of the Isles after gaining control of much of the Scottish Hebrides in the aftermath of Bannockburn. The clan would then unsuccessfully lay claim to the Earldom of Ross in the north-west of Scotland culminating in defeat at the bloody Battle of Harlaw in 1411. This loss would be avenged by the next generation of the MacDonalds, however, when Alexander would successfully gain control of the earldom and the power of the MacDonalds would reach its zenith under the chiefship of Alexander’s son, John, who would hold the titles of Earl fo Ross and Lord of the Isles simultaneously.
Despite this huge amount of power, John’s lofty position was also the reason for his demise as, in 1462, he would break his uneasy truce with the Scottish monarchy to enter into a treaty with the English King, Henry VII, agreeing to accept him as overlord if he defeated the Scottish King, James IV. This decision would backfire spectacularly for John as James and his forces invaded the Isles and stripped him of all his titles by 1493.
Over the next 50 years, the MacDonalds repeatedly attempted to revive the position of Lord of the Isles but they would do so to no avail and eventually, the various different branches of the family would accept the rule of the crown in return for charters recognising their separate holdings. The crown had therefore successfully divided the family into the multiple smaller branches we know today and defeated the threat that a unified MacDonald clan had brought under the leadership of one chief.
Following this defeat, various claims were made for the chiefship of the whole clan of MacDonald over the 500 years until 1947 when the present chief’s father was recognised as Lord MacDonald, high chief of Clan MacDonald. Under him sit the chiefs of the MacDonalds of Sleat, Clanranald, Glengarry and Keppoch.
Today, a highly active clan society exists which is based at Armadale Castle on the Isle of Skye, the current clan chief is the eighth Lord MacDonald, Godfrey Macdonald.